The twentieth century saw a wave of change in civil liberties and equality. Women gained far more rights and independence, giving them more of a voice and a choice in their own lives. Unless, we look back to the 1940s and examine what happened to those few wishing to enter a mixed marriage.
George Orwell’s satire of Stalinist Russia was published in the mid 1940s after having been rejected many times over by British and American publishers. Animal Farm has been held in high regard in the UK ever since in both English and History lessons.
Throughout World War 2, soldiers fought and died beside comrades of many races and cultural heritages. They had a common enemy epitomised for his taste for ethnic cleansing. Looking back, it almost seems as if it should have been a prime opportunity to recognise the dangers of racial hatred and segregation. Given the discovery of the Nazi camps, one has to wonder why the entire world wasn’t shaken to the core.
But it wasn’t.
Mixed race death: OK. But mixed race life…
Back home in the UK there was a completely different narrative still playing out. Racial segregation still dominated the lives of certain groups – especially when it came to black people. Social cohesion hadn’t even begun to enter the minds of British culture, let alone get itself the nice academic term that it has now. Black families kept to themselves, and white families kept them at barge-pole distance. The idea of mixed race couples, let alone marriage, was about as acceptable as Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden, tragically fated relationship.
It was amidst this context that Seretse Khama and Rita Williams’ marriage in 1948 began their fight against prejudice. Khama had been the royal with Chieftainship over Bechuanaland – now known as Botswana – in the south of Africa. He met the 19 year old Rita Williams whilst studying in the UK and they both started a courtship that lasted for a year. Despite an attempted intervention from Khama’s uncle, their marriage went ahead against the wishes of their family, friends, and most of the society in which they lived.
At around the same time Orwell was producing his second foray into dystopia with 1984 – his novella forewarning us of a future dictated by a normalisation of behaviour and a removal of emotions, where everything was monitored. (Sound familiar?).
Neither an Orwellian or real society, it seemed, would permit something as fickle as “love” to command its population. Mixed marriage might not have been a theme of his story, but the concept of state control of emotions was.
By 1951 Khama found himself in exile from his home country as the result of pressure from South Africa. The idea of such a socially unacceptable marriage being played out in neighbouring nation must have dishonoured their rules of persecution. So they forced the hand of the UK, who could not afford to sacrifice positive relations with a country with rich supplies of gold and uranium.
Just three years after the war, Apartheid broke out in South Africa and lasted over forty years. Add that to the trigger points that all grouped around the end of the 1940s – Khama’s exile, Apartheid beginning, etc. – it was almost as though the atrocities of the second world war had never even happened.
Was there any progress made?
More than seventy years on, after seeing the likes of Seretse Khama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, et al, have we really learnt anything? No-one is born with a deliberate hatred of others, and besides a need for self-preservation, the basic human needs do not include the exclusion of others.
In fact, we go to great lengths in the UK education system to combat racism. Children and young people learn through: “Personal, Social and Health Education”; religious studies and spiritual education; the Citizenship curriculum; science; sociology and psychology; and of course history. There are too many situations in society today where we make it abundantly clear what values we wish generations to grow up with. The National Curriculum has existed for nearly thirty years itself, and that has always included some elements of even the most modern editions.
Perhaps one of the biggest fingers needs to be pointed at the media, who make constant efforts to stir up fear and loathing. It was reported this year that there has been a 50% increase in the reported incidents of “hate crimes” since the EU referendum. Rather cynically, the media are now running stories on how “awful it is,” making sure they represent specific groups in certain ways.
It was the media who acted as propaganda platform for the Brexit campaigns, happily jumping on hyperbole such as the “swarms” of immigrants making ‘last minute dashes’ to the UK. Controlling immigration numbers became a major issue for people voting to leave the EU, and the media made every effort to tie this up with UK homeland security issues.
But when asking if we ever learn from this we have to wonder about the ease in which our government officials stood in remembrance on 11th November 2015, once again uttering the words: “Lest we forget,” and within a week there were more talks of airstrikes on Syria. France was hitting back against terror attacks, and the UK was changing its Facebook images to Blue, White and Red in “solidarity.” That solidarity did not stretch to refugees heading our way until the photo of the little boy on the beach hit front pages.
Hubble, bubble, toil and the mixing pot of trouble
Instead of the increased action in the East slowing or reducing the war and death, it still continues today. The media have happily stirred up fears of the “other” as they depict tens of thousands of refugees marching towards us, crossing countries to come to the UK. They tied this up into the EU Referendum arguments over free movement and the public were carried away by it, missing the fact that non-EU immigration is a totally different matter.
If you believe the media, our housing is full, our schools are over-flowing, and we have no jobs for anyone: huge numbers of people connect those issues solely with immigration. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that shows how genuine economic migrants actually boost our economy, enough fear has been generated for enough of the public to see the word “immigrant” and consider it a “problem.”
Apparently we need better control over our borders in order to protect our national security, which is ironic since the vast majority of terrorist attacks on UK soil over the past century have come from “home-grown” attackers. The majority of terrorist attacks on UK soil came from the times of the IRA, and not Islamic “extremists.” Imagine if the narrative was to fear everyone with an Irish accent, too.
Furthermore, “Islamic Extremist” is an oxymoron: one cannot be both Muslim and an extremist at the same time and more than one can claim to be “Christian” and a member of the Ku Klux Klan in America. Extremist share one thing in common: hatred that invariably leads to violence.
Democratic idealism under the cover of “national security”
Donald Trump is prime example of someone who knows how to tap into this fear. His statement that he wanted to control, or even complete ban, the immigration of Muslims for the safety of the American people shocked the world. This idea conveniently forgets that the Americas were foundered on the basis of mass immigration and terrible genocidal atrocities against the indigenous population. American idealism of imperialism loved to harp back to the “democracy” of Ancient Greece. Ironically, Ancient Greek democratic society was a two-tiered system based on a culture of slavery. In which case the USA got it spot-on.
Back in the UK, we have Muslim communities being asked to deal with the problems of growing extremist attitudes, and schools have been instructed to be “on the lookout” for children “displaying the warning signs.” We are not so far from asking all Muslims to where an identifying armband to make sure we can identify them – especially since some exceptionally ignorant people still shout “Muslim: terrorist” at Sikh men wearing a Turban.
Of course we have made substantial progress and thankfully open racism is not the every-day norm for most people. British society is a richly multicultural , and the UK is so much the better for it. Mixed families and marriages are no longer so taboo. The danger is that we allow ourselves to be continually manipulated by media and political narratives that make hypocritical ignorance acceptable. Protesting that immigration should be curbed “to reduce the risk of terrorism” idea because the two issues have no solid link. And yet the media still feeds the fire.
The international market of marriage
There are now far more men and women who travel abroad to marry and bring their spouse back to the UK. This goes hand in hand with the the ties between “marriage” and “religion” weaken in many countries. The process of international marriage is not so straightforward, and extremely detailed visa applications make it a lot harder than it sounds. It is no longer just the reserve of rich old men wanting to “buy” wives from the Eastern Asian countries.
There are of course still some cultural values at play, and on the whole people still tend to marry within their community in some form or another. But “community” has become a far more fluid notion, and as the internet has grown the speed and capability of community. Many new laws about equality have provided protection to peoples’ rights that should prevent any overt discrimination such as Seretse Khama’s story and the South African Apartheid.
In a modern, war-torn world that seems no closer to the peace that each successive war promised to leave us, we have to wonder if we will ever really get to a stage when we truly accept difference as wonderful variety rather that a reason to punish.
Perhaps we will be eternally left holding the bard’s warning:
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
Watch the short BBC film on Seretse Khama